Selective Rationalization of Subsidies might solve the Agrarian Crisis

 

Link to Businessline: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/how-the-agrarian-crisis-can-be-eased/article28128069.ece

The current agrarian crisis in India is a product of two factors (i) failure to recognize when Green Revolution started giving diminishing returns and taking steps to come up with alternatives and (ii) economic impact of subsidies, which this article examines – both man made and policy failures.

The current crisis can be summed up as diminishing soil fertility, sinking water table, increasing costs (all effects of green revolution) and poor returns to farmers, periodic unaffordable spikes in key commodities, periodic excess production which are dumped on the roads ruining several farmers and a huge burden on the government.

The policy failures have arisen due to not recognizing the nature of demand and supply curves for agricultural commodities. The demand is highly inelastic – in a market which consumes 100 kg tomato if one supplies 125 kgs the prices collapse, since not much demand is there for the excess. Contrarily, where it is supplied 75kgs only, the prices skyrocket since everyone wants to garner their daily supplies.

The Graph plots the demand and supply of a typical agri crop. The cost buildup of various suppliers is arranged from lowest to highest and its ridge on top becomes the supply curve. In agriculture the demand curve is steep and supply curve is relatively flat. Where this is the case the market price is closer to supply curve. This leaves a huge consumer surplus (excess of what the people are willing to pay and what they actually end up paying) and thin profits. Where the demand curve is flat but supply curve the price line stays closer to demand and hence smaller consumer surplus and higher profits for producers.

Many people have argued for breakup of cartelization of middlemen and dismantling or reforming APMCs as the panacea for better farm gate prices.  This is as naïve as it can get. The middlemen are performing important functions like taking immediate delivery of perishables, financing farmers, storage, connecting with customers and markets, inventory holding etc. which we forget. If left to government agencies they would mess it up.

Sure most farmers are small (crops from 2-3 acres to sell) and their reach is at best the village boundaries or at best 4-5 kms. How do they perform all the functions the middlemen do? At the Mandies of course it is a case of ‘many sellers’ versus a ‘fewer buyers’. But it is foolish to think that fewer numbers by itself creates usury pricing power.  Most markets should have at least 40-50 buyers (or middlemen) versus may be 500-1000 sellers. But this is statistically enough to create conditions of undistorted trade. Imbalance might creep in if there are only 3-4 on one side and can collude overtly or covertly. Most suggestions on ‘reigning in’ middlemen for tackling agrarian crisis is bound to be ineffectual.

But the real problem is the supply curve‘s flatness. This is largely the result of governments ill-advised subsidy policy which makes no discrimination whatsoever on the various input subsidies to agriculture. When everything from electricity, water, seeds, fertilizer, interest, MSPs, are given free or subsidized without any limits of land holding or size, it leads to similar cost structures for most suppliers and hence the supply curve becomes flat as shown in Graph (Before segment). Even if all mandies are handed over to the farmers, with such a curve, their profitability is unlikely to improve much.

The solution should revolve around exploiting the inelasticity of demand. The sure fire solution is to make the supply curve more elastic and harvest a huge ‘consumer surplus’ (which is what the middlemen do – they don’t take away farmers’ profits; they take away consumers’ willingness to pay).

This can be achieved by rationalizing subsidies. This can be done by restricting subsidies to only those holding 2-3 acres or to the first 2-3 acres only for even for larger farmers. With precise targeting through DBT, it is possible in the current scenario. Or it can be graded like 100% of current levels for 2-3 acres, 50% for 4-8 acres and nil thereafter, like in the graph. This will increase the cost for larger farmers (all units with ‘L’ label on x axis) and induce a steepness (as shown in the After situation in the graph).

Rationalization of Subsidies

Effect of rationalizing subsidies

The prices as is seen in the graph will raise (in the illustration from Rs 69 to 84). This shifts a portion of consumer surplus to producer profits. This will mostly benefit the small and marginal farmers. This transfer is perhaps much needed. We cannot have a society where 55-60% of people get a share of 15% of GDP.

The quantities bought and sold will fall. But given the inelasticity of demand, it will be relatively much less.

The larger units which lose a part of their subsidies will become uncompetitive in their traditional crops. They will diversify into other commercial crops or crops for which there are no subsidies now so that they won’t suffer in relative terms versus subsidy supported small farmer.  This is an important necessity. Our food grains production is in surplus and for increasing its income, diversification is a pre-requisite.

This will also partially address the rural income inequality problems.

Governments finances

The Government will save a lot by curbing subsidies going to larger farmers. It can reduce the crops procured under MSP since the market prices would have substantially moved to enhance their incomes. This would have come from consumers who were willing to pay, hence may be without much pains (other than a onetime price adjustment as inflation). The Government may have to spend a part of its savings on covering some poorer marginal sections (who are net buyers of food) through higher PDS subsidies.

A portion of PDS procurement can be reserved for organic farming by larger farmers. With the promising growth for organic products the world over, it could give an early mover advantage.

The Government need not do this rationalization for all products. It can start with those where there are surplus buffer stocks. If prices of those products move up, consumers will diversify their consumption basket to other products and their prices of unsubsidized products will also start moving up. Larger farmers would gravitate towards such products.

Macro Imbalance and the need for a new framework agreement

My article in Businessline today.

The chorus for reduction of Real interest rates as the panacea for the current economic stall is getting louder. From commentators to administrators to economists that seems the only item in the menu these days.

Interest rates (nominal and real), Inflation, Forex rates and Reserves, Investments, Capital Account convertibility and Foreign Investment Flows (all from the input or causative side) and Growth, Output and Employment on the resultant side are all intricately interconnected. There seems a need to look at things comprehensively and evolve a framework agreement between RBI and the Government reflecting this reality.

Illustration of Inter connectedness and imbalance

People buy things in advance if either it is likely to be costlier in the future when they need it or for de-risking (like Gold and Real estate). But what if the realized prices later consistently prove to be less? Would people still buy upfront or would it indicate some discrepancy? Lets see it in the context of forex rates.

The actual rates post facto have consistently been lower (far lower) than the Forward rates (rates quoted today for $ that will be delivered say 3, 6 months later).

The first one is determined based on the difference in inflation rates and the second one based on difference in nominal interest rates. If the Real Interest Rates are deducted from nominal, then the movement in both should be determined by difference in inflation. This should hold but for changes in outlook and situational factors and the policy induced difference in Real interest rates.

The persistence of actual rate being way less than Forward rate represents a serious imbalance and causes plenty of problems in domestic competitiveness, flow of foreign currency, investment absorptive capacity, etc. For example, if apples (representative of a basket of goods) are selling at Rs 50 in India and $1 overseas, then exchange rate should be ideally 1$ = Rs 50. Say, next year Indian apples have suffered an inflation of 10 per cent and have gone up to Rs 55. But apples overseas have suffered an inflation of 2 per cent and gone up to $1.02. Then the exchange rate should be Rs 55/1.02 = 53.93. But if the exchange rate is kept at say Rs 51, then the Indian exporter will get 1.02$ X 51 = 52.02 Rs /apple while he is able to get Rs 55 selling it domestically. Why would he export? To overcome this, we should allow the Re to correct. This will happen if we match the $ supplies into India with its net imports

Contours of a new framework agreement 

The framework agreement between the Government and RBI should cover all the essential variables not just one or two in isolation. Such an agreement should cover the following.

Limits on Forex Inflows: The inflows should be calibrated to match the absorptive capacity of the economy and its investment needs.  While Capital account convertibility can remain, RBI has to limit the quantum either at total levels or under each major sources of inflow. Reserves are a costly loss making insurance asset (much like Gold in individuals’ hands) whose cost are far more than the difference between interest earned and paid. It has effect on the real economy. The limits can be +/- 1-2% of what is required to plug the CAD or 6 months imports +/- 2 weeks.

Maintenance of Competitiveness: Competitiveness comprises two elements – the physical and the currency. Physical competitiveness comes from technology, scale, skills, IPRs, and natural resource endowments over which neither RBI nor Government may have control. Currency needs to stay competitive which can be achieved only if it floats freely to reflect the inflation differential.

Forex rates: RBI should be mandated to maintain the REER values within 2/3% of Re’s REER value after correcting the massive divergence now on a one-time basis.

Recalibrating REER Values: Again instead of using the general inflation numbers of the countries it should be the inflation of major input costs (including interest costs) of goods and services traded between India and its major trading partners. This basket may keep changing but there are real dangers of monolithic baskets or even currencies as a whole which are governed by many factors other than what determines competitiveness.

Real interest rates – Real interest rates should be mandated to be within 5-10 bps spread over interest rates in competing countries and those investing into India. High real interest rates and overvalued currency may encourage debt flows more than investments in real assets and FDIs.

Inflation: Divergence between estimated actuals and realized actuals after the end of period is difficult to control even for items like Forex rates where almost all participants are educated, trained and hence rational. It becomes even more hazardous in inflationary expectation. It’s time we move on to inflation targets for 3-4 major groups. Food inflation is far more politically sensitive and socially damaging than perhaps white goods or real estate.

Stability of Laws:  The last 4-5 years have seen sudden sharp changes in rules governing provisioning, NPAs, default status, etc. and levels of support to distressed assets even those which are clean but facing stretched cash flows. Changes should factor in reasonable adjustment period.

Quid Pro Quo

If these are corrected, governments should undertake to do the following:

  • To stay within the 3-4% fiscal deficit targets,
  • To smoothen MSP increases based on fundamentals rather than subject to political whims and fancies,
  • To curtail interest declared on mandated savings like PF, PPF etc.,and
  • Not to announce arbitrary minimum wages.

The current economic impasse is arising out of highly overvalued currency, uncompetitive real interest rates, inflows far in excess of absorptive capacity and inflation which looks more western and 1st world’s. The entire burden of causing growth and employment hence falls on the elected Government which has to substitute for the private sector which has been rendered uncompetitive due to these imbalances.

A comprehensive agreement on the above lines would go very far in kick starting growth and employment once again.

Flexibility and Agility are Virtues

Ironically almost a century ago, as the noted economist Irving Fisher in his The Money Illusion quotes Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of Ex-chequer UK as follows: “Since the War, central bank reforms have been instituted in Albania, Austria, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Hungary, …India, Russia, South Africa. In all these countries, except India, not one central bank has copied the Bank Act of England; but with that exception, all have adopted some system which is similar to the Federal Reserve Act” which provides for an ‘elastic currency’… the greater elasticity of the Federal Reserve System (is) the main reason for the higher prosperity of America”.

What was true then of America is true today of China which has proved far more nimble footed and what was true of Bank of England is true of RBI, which treats cast in stone monolithic approach as a virtue.

(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).